Bridges Durban Update #1 | Trade issues in the spotlight on the eve of COP 17

28 November 2011

One word can sum up the outlook for the Durban Conference of the Parties (COP) this year: uncertainty. But that may not be all bad. Last year’s meeting in Cancun, Mexico showed us all that sometimes low expectations may be the best way to get results at climate negotiations. Jump back a year further to 2009, when many observers said that parties meeting in Copenhagen, Denmark, were poised to deliver a new binding treaty for climate change cooperation. Instead, great expectations resulted in a mighty flop.

Disappointment in Copenhagen cost many global leaders a good deal of political capital – leaving them unwilling to make such a gamble the following year. But whether pre-COP doldrums prove to be a magic formula for lifting the fog at UNFCCC COPs remains to be seen. The show bill for this year includes several overview agendas and an array of unfinished texts, making it impossible to tell how this year’s climate spectacle will unfold.

Future of Kyoto up in the air

By all accounts, the headliner at this year’s COP is the Kyoto Protocol. Signed in 1997, the Protocol’s first and, to date, only period of implementation – “commitment period” in climate parlance – began in 2008 and will end in 2012. The Protocol envisages a second commitment period, and countries have spent over a decade negotiating the finer details of what the future of the Protocol would be. An array of influencing elements has derailed progress on the next term’s negotiations, and only a handful of redeeming qualities may keep the agreement alive.

One glaring shortcoming of Kyoto is the failure of the United States to ratify, despite having negotiated and signed the agreement alongside all other signatories. The US is the largest historical emitter and held the record for highest annual emissions until 2009, when it was surpassed by China. Its absence from the game is a major imbalance in the equity of the multilateral climate system, to say the least. But more importantly, considering the US’ contribution to the problem, their absence from full participation in Kyoto – or any other multilateral climate agreement, for that matter – will ensure that the problem remains inadequately addressed. Solving the global problem, according to scientists and economists, requires the participation of all major players. The US has adamantly and clearly refused to join the Kyoto Protocol, and therefore the new round of negotiations launched at Bali in 2007 were intended, in part, as an “on-ramp” for their participation.

In addition, the new round, known as the negotiation on Long-term Cooperative Action (LCA) was a way to a substantially increase the role of the other big players: the major economies among the developing countries – which have no commitments under the Protocol – are now at the top of the list of carbon emitters. However, the LCA process has sent Kyoto into a tail spin, because many developed countries would now like to shelve the old agreement and replace it with something based on new rules and principles. The developing countries, negotiating primarily as the G77 and China, hold tight to the overarching framework of the UNFCCC and insist on a new commitment period for Kyoto. One reason is because Kyoto is premised on principles and rules that developing countries consider to be fair and equitable, such as developed countries taking the lead in carbon emissions reductions and the respect for the former’s overriding development concerns. The sum of these two components specifically translates in the Convention to financial and economic support for developing countries’ climate change mitigation and adaptation activities. For developing countries the LCA would be a complementary agreement to the Kyoto Protocol, rather than a replacement.

That said, Japan and Russia indicated this past year that they do not intend to sign on to a second period for Kyoto. However, a special voting rule and a handful of tools created within the Protocol may still lead to the survival of the agreement. These tools include the “flexibility mechanisms” – such as the Clean Development Mechanism, Joint Implementation, and the Emissions Trading Schemes – that were created to help developed countries to meet their mitigation commitments; perhaps more importantly, these tools are the primary platform upon which the current global carbon market is based. An end to the Protocol could, in theory, topple the multi-billion dollar market. But a little-talked-about voting rule – which provides that in the absence of full agreement a three quarter majority vote could suffice to trigger a second commitment period – may just prove to be enough to hold Kyoto together for now.

The fact of the matter is that, while the LCA has generated a number of key agreements on certain aspects of its mandate, it has not concluded talks on emissions reductions, which is at the heart of solving the climate problem. Until it does, the Kyoto Protocol is the only concrete agreement on emissions reductions.

Trade issues loom ever larger on the horizon

Recent years of negotiation have seen a steady rise in discussions on the potential role of trade measures on the impacts of and responses to climate change. In particular, Durban will host the second part of a special “forum” on the impacts of domestic measures taken to combat climate change upon other countries. “Response measures,” as they are known in the negotiations, have been discussed in different ways for years, but have primarily been associated with the possible harm to oil-producing economies that may arise from a potential global decrease in oil consumption. A rise in domestic protectionist measures and debates on designing policies and measures with global trade implications, nonetheless, have pushed the issue closer to the top of the negotiating agenda for several countries.

The response measures forum began in Bonn at the mid-year negotiation sessions in June and is scheduled to conclude in Durban. Its mandate is to put together a work programme to address the issue and consider the possible establishment of a permanent forum. Considering the fact that no venue currently exists for countries to present information, exchange views, and consider solutions to potential challenges that result from the implementation of burgeoning climate measures, the proposition of a permanent forum is a particularly interesting prospect.

The WTO has its dispute settlement body to consider instances where such measures might violate trade rules. But affected countries can only exercise this option after the measure has been adopted, rather than provide a potential instance for conflict avoidance. In addition, the WTO only addresses the violation of international trade rules and would not consider the broad spectrum of potential consequences to economic development, impacts to the environment – including evaluation of the actual mitigation benefits – or impacts on society. These sustainable development dimensions are protected under the UNFCCC, and such a forum would provide a concrete process for reducing negative and maximising positive impacts. The response measure forum takes place under the auspices of the Subsidiary Body for Implementation, one of the two principle negotiating bodies of the Convention.

LCA track weighed down by trade concerns

Meanwhile, under the Ad-hoc Working Group on Long-term Cooperative Action, several trade-related discussions continue. The first is related to the question of competitiveness, where some countries fear that action to reduce climate emissions will negatively impact their companies’ and industrial sectors’ competitiveness in international markets. In essence, many developed countries say they will be at a disadvantage if some countries with competing industries are required to do less than others to mitigate emissions at a global level. For their part, developing countries have concerns about the potential use of trade measures by developed countries attempting to “level the playing field.” Poor countries argue that such measures could impact their economic and sustainable development. To pre-empt the use of such measures, they are insisting that language prohibiting the use of unilateral measures to address climate change be included in the new agreement. Similar language is included in a draft text on response measures under the LCA. These discussions are taking place under a sub-category known as the “shared vision,” where parties also discuss the composite emission cuts for the world and how the total agreement balances out.

In a separate sub-group on “sectoral approaches” to mitigation, the topics of agriculture and bunker fuels – dirty fuel used in shipping and aviation – are back on the table in a similar form to what was considered and then dropped in Cancun. The trade implications remain an obvious concern under both of these topics and are reflected in references in the draft texts. The agriculture text proposes the creation of a work programme on both mitigation and adaptation in the agriculture sector. Meanwhile, the bunkers discussion is oriented more toward whether to advance discussions on climate change issues related to global transport under the UNFCCC, rather than under the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), as is currently the case.

Finally, while the role of intellectual property rights in the deployment and transfer of technologies for climate change remains a concern for many countries, the issue is far from resolved. There is little indication from inter-sessional negotiations or meetings that Durban is poised to make any decisions on this topic, which is among the most contentious subjects under the technology negotiations. It may, nevertheless, get some traction.

Potential advances

While the Kyoto issue will be hogging the spotlight in Durban, there will still be many other decisions taken in an array of negotiating branches. For example, forward movement is expected as the Green Climate Fund is operationalised and as it gears up for disbursement. With this issue resolved, the new Technology Mechanism will then have access to financing for its work on assessments, capacity building, and other substantive topics. Progress is also expected on the adaptation front, with the new strategy agreed to in Cancun taking greater shape. This strategy is also poised to receive financing for initiatives such as National Adaptation Plans.

Discussions on mitigation in the search for a new agreement are unlikely to produce any major results. However, some progress could take place on the measuring, reporting, and verification of national actions, as well as on International Consultation and Analysis – the two developing issues that would constitute some form of compliance for a future regime. Currently, movement on both these topics is slow, almost to the point of being imperceptible – a fact that is frustrating to many countries and observers in light of the conspicuous gravity of the global climate situation.

Whether success in Cancun was reaped by the low expectations, the brilliant diplomacy by the COP president, or, simply, the tranquil atmosphere brought on by warm breezes and palm trees – then Durban is as prepared as any host could be. If one can take anything from the Cancun experience, it is not to be swayed by early reports of a deadlock. These two weeks set aside for tedious negotiations can easily change at any time, for either better or worse; the real answer will only be found after the dust settles on 10 December.

This article is published under
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